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Why Bullies Bully

What you need to know about bullying, bullies, and how to stop the cycle of bullying.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

The Phoebe Prince bullying case in South Hadley, Mass., has put bullying in the national spotlight. After months of alleged bullying by classmates that reportedly included verbal assaults, online harassment, and social exclusion, Prince, a 15-year-old high school student, took her own life.

Although most cases aren't as extreme, bullying takes its toll on children across the U.S. every day. For every 100 kids in middle school, eight are bullied every day, seven are bullied every week, and 33 are bullied once in a while, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Jordon Fonville, a 17-year-old junior in Conway, Ark., knows firsthand what it feels like to be bullied. Six years ago when she was a new student in sixth grade, she was picked on and bullied for months by her classmates.

"The girls were so mean to me," says Fonville, who speaks out against bullying in her community. "They talked about me, made up rumors, picked on me… they even went to the principal's office and asked for advice on how to tell me they didn't want to be friends anymore -- and the principal didn't do anything about it."

For Fonville, being bullied by her peers was an extremely difficult experience -- making her feel bad about herself, depressed, and alone. Fortunately, her parents recognized the situation needed adult intervention and transferred their daughter to another school.

Why do bullies bully? And what can be done to stop to bullying? Here's what experts told WebMD.

Building a Bully

Bullies seek power at someone else's expense. They harm that person over and over -- emotionally and/or physically -- to get it.

"It involves a more powerful person and a less powerful person, and is a form of aggression where one or more children repeatedly intimidate, harass, or harm a victim who cannot defend himself," says Robert Sege, MD, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and a contributor to the American Academy of Pediatrics' updated policy on bullying.

Bullies are shaped, in part, by these factors:

  • Uncontrolled anger. "The No. 1 predictor of bullying behavior is anger, particularly in kids who have no way to manage it," says Dorothy Espelage, PhD, a professor and university scholar in the educational psychology department of the University of Illinois at Champaign. Angry kids, she says, are more likely to show bullying characteristics -- even if they have high self-esteem, and even toward their own siblings at home, which is often where bullying begins.
  • No consequences. If adults don't nip bullying behavior in the bud, it may worsen. "A lack of adult response early on in the bullying behavior emboldens bullies," says Peter Raffalli, MD, a child neurologist at Children's Hospital in Boston. "It fuels the bullies by basically saying to them that it's OK because the adults don't care, and aren't interjecting to put a stop to it." 
  • Home life. Domestic violence, emotional and/or physical abuse, anger, and hostility at home -- directed at them or someone else -- can help build a bully.        
  • Media and video games. Seeing bullying behavior in the media and video games can be a bad influence if it shows that behavior being rewarded.

Other factors include "low impulse control, a low frustration tolerance, a need to control or dominate, anger issues, an opposition toward authority, and aggressiveness, " Raffalli says.

No single factor guarantees that a child will turn to bullying. Any of many potential troubling traits can tip a young person over the edge.

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